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Listening to Children on the Spiritual Journey: Guidance for Those Who Teach and Nurture

Catherine Stonehouse, Scottie May
Published by Baker Academic in 2010

Catherine Stonehouse and Scottie May, in their book Listening to Children on the Spiritual Journey: Guidance for Those Who Teach and Nurture, have presented a very helpful analysis of children’s spiritual experiences based on several studies by the authors over a number of years. The purpose of the book is “to better understand the spirituality of children and how parents and faith communities can participate with them as they come to know God and grow in their life of faith” (1). Stonehouse and May have taken the findings and have “woven them together to provide what … [they] trust will be a helpful picture of children and adults on their faith journey” (2). The book is particularly “designed to allow the reader to hear the voices of the children in … [their] studies” (3). The various studies are briefly described in the introduction and the two primary projects (the Listening to Children and the Adult Reflection studies) are outlined in more detail in Appendix A. Each chapter includes the actual words of the children and the parents to help flesh out the points made by the authors, and most of the chapters include specific suggestions for taking the presented information and applying it to the lives of children to aid them on their spiritual journeys. Stonehouse and May have created a very helpful, clearly written book that provides the reader with a close look at the spiritual development of children – it is definitely worth reading.

The authors’ goal in chapter 1 is to convince the reader of the importance of listening to children’s words to describe their spiritual development. Stonehouse and May appeal to the example set by Jesus when he listened to the voices of children while he was on earth. Chapter 2 examines an interesting array of drawings (many are included in color within the book) made by the children as they use their art to illustrate what they think God is like. Chapter 3 describes how the children experience God in their personal, everyday lives, particularly through prayer. Chapter 4 helps the reader understand how the children experience God in worship and includes ideas for how sacred space can be created for children to encourage them in worship. Chapter 5 examines the importance of the Bible in the spiritual lives of these children and offers tips to draw children into the biblical story.

Chapter 6 describes “How children come to faith” (8). The analysis in this chapter includes a discussion of which experiences hinder children from taking this step as well as experiences that can help them along the journey. Chapter 7 explores children’s desire to participate in compassionate actions and offers some suggestions about how parents and churches can create opportunities for children to become involved in service opportunities. The final chapter, chapter 8, includes a number of suggestions that parents and churches can use to help their children grow spiritually. In addition to the eight chapters which constitute the core of the book, the authors have provided two appendices with additional information. Appendix A is a detailed description of the research methodology used in the two primary studies. Appendix B includes a comprehensive list of resources and ideas that can be used to help children during their spiritual journeys.

Stonehouse and May have given the reader a wonderful gift by encouraging us to listen to children and parents about the spiritual development of children. For too many years, theorists and practitioners alike have assumed that they know what children need without going directly to the children and parents to understand what has been meaningful and significant in the spiritual formation of children. The children’s voices in particular bring to life a deeper understanding of children’s thoughts as they begin to understand God and grow in their faith. For example, one ten-year-old, when speaking about his drawing of God, said he was giving him a stern look. “‘Stern?’ queried the interviewer. ‘Yes, God, God is stern, God is gentle, God is loving, God is a whole bunch of things and he, and he loves people so much the he even gave his son’” (25). Or Lorraine, who was seven, when asked what she liked about being in the adult worship service, responded, “‘Having Communion, because Jesus talks to me sometimes. He tells me I’m doing good, that I should love people more, and that I’m a good Christian. That kind of relieves my hurts’” (57). Another boy, who was 17 at the time, was asked to describe important events along his spiritual journey. In reply, he said, “‘I can’t really think of any specific events ‘cause it’s gotten to be more like a stream; it starts out really small, not really deep, not very wide. My relationship with God has grown; it’s gotten wider, faster, deeper’” (95). Without words like these from the children themselves, the findings would be shallow and the book uninviting. However, because of the enormity of the task the authors have set out to accomplish, few others have attempted this before. Now we have a place where we can hear the actual voices of the children and the parents speaking about a critical issue.

Not only have the authors done an excellent job of listening to the voices of the children and their parents, but they have also presented the readers with an extensive list of practical ways to help parents and churches foster children’s spiritual development (such as the importance of families praying together as described in chapter 3; how helpful it can be to provide sacred space for children to find God as in chapter 4; the need to tell Bible stories to children as outlined in chapter 5 and many resources provided for this in appendix B; or many possible ways to get children connected with their compassionate side as seen in chapter 6). By incorporating some of these examples into family life and church experiences, the authors believe that the spiritual lives of children will be enhanced.

While Listening to Children is a well-written text based on extensive and direct interviews with children and their parents, there are also limitations to the text. First, the work would have been stronger if it had been set within the background of one or more of the relevant developmental theories such as Jean Piaget’s cognitive developmental theory1 or James Fowler’s faith development theory.2 Connecting the findings to a theoretical model or developing the study out of a theoretical model would help the reader understand that the findings are not isolated facts but can be understood more fully within wider theoretical contexts that have been carefully examined and dissected over the years. Without connections to a wider theoretical base and the previous research which has come out of those theories, the findings of this particular study become isolated, less robust, and suspect with regards to generalizing them to other locations and populations.

In addition to ignoring the potential benefit of explaining the research within a theoretical framework, the authors also neglected to mention other works which could have helped set the context for this study. In particular, readers would benefit from knowing about works that carefully outline the methodology and importance of interview research with children such as Ellen Galinsky’s3 or Susan Engel’s.4 Those who are concerned with the spiritual formation and faith development of children would also benefit from knowing about seminal works in the field like Robert Coles’5 and James Fowler’s6 classics, neither of which is mentioned by Stonehouse and May.

Finally, the research methodology, though carefully described in Appendix A, has two weaknesses of note. First, the sample is not a random sample. While random samples are not always easy to obtain, they have the advantage of allowing researchers to generalize their findings to a broader population. Second, the distribution of the sample by gender, ethnicity, and denomination is not described in the text. These two factors limit the generalizability of the findings from this study. In other words, without randomization and without a sample that is distributed across key demographic categories, we cannot be sure that the findings from this study would be similar to the findings from other studies with different samples.

In conclusion, Stonehouse and May have presented the readers with a very helpful text that includes careful descriptions of children’s and parents’ stories about spiritual development as well as excellent suggestions for parents and churches to implement in order to facilitate spiritual development in children. Although there are a few weaknesses, they pale in comparison to the depth and importance of the findings presented here. Reading the book Listening to Children on the Spiritual Journey and incorporating some of their suggestions into one’s family life and church activities is highly recommended.

Cite this article
John A. Addleman., “Listening to Children on the Spiritual Journey: Guidance for Those Who Teach and Nurture”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 41:1 , 100-102


  1. Jean Piaget and Barbara Inhelder, The Psychology of the Child (New York: Basic Books, 1969).
  2. James Fowler, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981).
  3. Ellen Galinsky, Ask the Children: The Breakthrough Study that Reveals How to Succeed at Work and Parenting(New York: HarperCollins, 1999).
  4. Susan Engel, The Stories Children Tell: Making Sense of the Narratives of Childhood (New York: W. H. Free-man, 1995).
  5. Robert Coles, The Spiritual Life of Children (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990).
  6. James Fowler, Stages of Faith.

John A. Addleman.

John A. Addleman, Psychology, Messiah College